In examining the causes of the inferiority of American periodical literature, the most readily assignable and generally applicable is that its contributions are mostly unpaid. It is pretty safe to enunciate as a general rule that when you want a good thing you must pay for it. Now, the reprint of English magazines can be sold for two dollars per annum, whereas a properly supported home magazine cannot be afforded for less than four or five. Hence, no one will embark a large capital in so doubtful an undertaking; and periodical editorship is generally a last resource or a desperate speculation. One of the leading magazines in New York--perhaps on the whole the most respectable and best conducted--was started with borrowed
capital of three hundred dollars. The proprietors of a magazine should have a fair sum in hand to begin with, to secure the services of able and eminent men to make a good start.At the same time, the editor finds at his disposal a most tempting array (so far as quantity and variety are concerned) of gratuitous contributions. For there is in America a mob of men and women who write with ease. The system of compositions and orations at school and college makes them "writers" before they know how to read and gives them a manner before they can have acquired matter. Most of these people are sufficiently paid by the glory of appearing in print. The specific evils of this system of providing material are that it prevents an editor from standing on a proper footing toward his contributors, who feel that they are doing a charitable, patronising, or at least a very friendly act in contributing; and it stands in the way of honest criticism, for he who cannot pay in dollars must pay in flattery. Other influences conspire to pervert and impede criticism. Very few of the American periodical writers, professed or occasional, are liberally educated. The popular education tends to platitude and commonplace. Their reading is chiefly of new books, a most uncritical style of reading. The democratic influence moulds all men to think unlike, and Mrs. Grundy is a very important estate in the republic. Then there are very powerful interests all ready to take offence and cry out. The strongest editor is afraid of some of these. One great aim of an American magazine is to tread on nobody's toes, or as their circulars phrase it "to contain nothing which shall offend the most fastidious." Accordingly, nearly all the magazines and reviews profess and practice political neutrality; and the two or three exceptions depend almost entirely on their political articles and partisan circulation. We know one editor who is continually apologising to his subscribers and one half of his correspondents for what the other half write.
Another enemy of true criticism in America is provincialism. The country is parcelled out in small cliques, who settle things in their own way and in their own particular districts. Thus, there are shining lights in Boston who are "small potatoes" in New York, and "most remarkable" men in the West whom no one has remarked in the East. Sometimes, indeed, these cliques, contrive to ramify and extend their influence by a regular system of "tickle me and I'll tickle you," which there is not even an endeavor to conceal. For instance, when the classical lion of a certain clique had been favourably reviewed by a gentleman in another city, whose opinion was supposed to be worth something, the periodical organ of the clique publicly expressed its thanks for the favour, and in return dug up a buried novel of the critic's and did its best to resuscitate it by a vigorous puff. The exceptions to indiscriminate praise in American reviewing usually spring from private misunderstandings. Two literateurs on a magazine quarrel, one of them is kicked out of doors, and then they begin to criticise each other's writings. And the consequence is that it is next to impossible to pass an unfavourable opinion upon anything without having personal motives attributed to you. When an author is condemned, the first step is to find out the writer of the review and assail him on personal grounds. Also, there are often disputes about unsettled accounts, which have an awkward tendency to influence the subsequent critical and editorial opinions of both parties.
Such are some of the causes which militate against the attainment of high standards in American periodical literature. For some years it went on very swimmingly on credit, but it is doubtful if the experiment could be successfully repeated. Since it is plain that the republication of English magazines must interfere with the home article, the passing of an International Copyright law would be the greatest benefit which could be conferred on American periodical literature.